Cost-cutting backs the police into a corner

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 July, 2004, 12:00am

Chief Dick Lee says trimming budget further could affect frontline officers and undermine public confidence

The police force will have trouble cutting its budget further in the next financial year, and its pledge to minimise the impact on frontline officers and the public might be compromised, the commissioner has warned.

Security 'is expensive, but important', Police Commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai said, and how to strike the balance was a political decision the government would have to make.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the police chief also revealed plans to cut 200 posts from the marine police in an overhaul to save money and modernise water policing.

The force has slashed 2,500 civilian and disciplinary posts and saved about $1.1 billion since the government launched its efficiency drive in 2000. Most of the savings have been through the streamlining of management and procedures and cutting non-frontline posts.

The force, with a budget of $11.5 billion and 27,175 officers, is required to continue to cut its budget by 2.5 per cent a year until 2008-09.

'We'll start having difficulties in 2005-06. We still need to assess clearly the impact of some changes if they are implemented,' Mr Lee said.

'You can cut whatever you like but you'll have to bear the consequences. This is a political decision. If the government is really having financial difficulties, as a department head, I have the responsibility to tell the government the impact of each level of cut.'

The commissioner said some frontline services would inevitably be affected in order to achieve more savings; for example, more police stations might need to be merged and the principles adopted to minimise the impact of such mergers might have to be ignored.

Mr Lee said the station amalgamations so far had helped strengthen beat patrols in some districts after making savings by deleting expensive command posts.

The local communities had accepted the changes, as reporting facilities were kept in these areas.

'If you ask me to make further cuts, some of these principles might have to be compromised,' Mr Lee said, referring to the bottom line that frontline beat patrols could not be cut.

'Public confidence would definitely be undermined if there were fewer patrolling officers,' he said. 'I hope our stability will not be rocked.'

A proposal is being discussed with the Security Bureau to replace large patrol launches with smaller vessels. About 10 per cent of the 2,400 posts within the marine police would be phased out. If adopted, it would need four to five years to implement.

Mr Lee said the traditional practice of using big launches to patrol Hong Kong waters was outdated. Sea patrols in many countries now relied on technology, such as thermal imaging systems, and smaller vessels that were more efficient, less costly and required less manpower.

The marine police has a fleet of 140 vessels, including 14 divisional patrol launches and seven harbour patrol launches.

Of these, 21 larger boats might need to be phased out and replaced with smaller vessels.